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Do the Irish speak Gaelic?

  • A Republic of Ireland highway sign gives directions in the country's two languages: English and Irish (Irish Gaelic).
    A Republic of Ireland highway sign gives directions in the country's two languages: English and Irish (Irish Gaelic).
Published March 30. 2013 09:02AM

In the wake of St. Patrick's Day, a Lehighton woman couldn't keep herself from sharing an old family fable. Connie Cunningham tells the story of her great-grandfather, Joseph Michael Cunningham, and how he taught Gaelic to the Irish.

Joseph Michael Cunningham grew up on a farm west of the midlands of Ireland, just outside the town of County Galway, Ireland. The town's name, Tuaim, is derived from the Latin "tumulus"which means "burial mound".

Connie said that for centuries the British controlled Ireland and tried to drive Ireland's native culture underground. In particular, the British saw the Gaelic language as barbaric and tried to abolish its use.

Over time, the majority of the Irish became English speakers, with a couple of rebellious marginal areas maintaining their cultural heritage and language. Connie's great-grandfather learned the Irish Gaelic, and in the late 1800s, helped to spread the language, and helped to reinvigorate many Irish to see themselves as coming from an ancient and distinct culturesignificantly different from the English.

He was caught up in the spirit of the Celtic Revival, which drew on the traditions of Celtic literature, art and language to encourage a sense of Irish nationalism, which in 1919 led to the Irish war of Independence, and in 1922, led to the Irish Free State.

Six counties of Northern Ireland opted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The southern independent portion of the island of Ireland became known as the Republic of Ireland.

The Celtic tradition was relatively unknown in Ireland until the 1800s. The Gaulsthe name they called themselveswere called Celts by their enemies. Celts, a name first used by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C. to refer to the tribes of peoples scattered across Europe north of the Alps and the River Danube were a loosely organized warring tribal group that controlled much of Europe before the rise of the Roman Empireeven defeating the early efforts of the Romans. Julius Caesar chased the Celts from their European homeland, and they fled northward and eastwardwith many settling in Ireland. Thus Celtic people call themselves Gauls and speak to Gaelic language, or at least once spoke the Gaelic language.

From Ireland, the Gaelic language expanded to Scotland and the Isle of Man. Because of this separation, the Gaelic language has three variations: Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, and Manx. This means that the Irish do not speak pure Gaelic, they speak Irish Gaelic or Irisha somewhat different language from Scots Gaelic and Manx.

Before British rule, Irish was the predominant language of the Irish people. Through the combination of the British control, the Great Potato Famine, and the immigration that followed, less than 15 percent of the Irish population spoke Irish Gaelic except in a few small communities along its west coast.

At the end of the nineteenth century, members of the Gaelic Revival movement made efforts to encourage the learning and use of Irish in Ireland, particularly to develop journalism and a modern literature.

Today, the Republic of Ireland has two official languages: English and Irish. The Irish language, also called Irish Gaelic, is called Gaeilge in Ireland. The Scottish language, also called Scots Gaelic, is called Gàidhlig in Scotland.

Cunningham also remembers her grandfather, Michael Joseph Cunningham, a Brooklyn police sergeant who was remembered as "having a job during the Depression."

"My grandfather emigrated to the United States. During the Irish Revolution, his Brooklyn home served as a refuge for my father's Irish uncles who were fighting the British. When he had vacation, he would join them in their fight for freedom, and when he was in Ireland, he taught anyone who was interested how to speak Irish Gaelic.

Connie returned to Ireland with her family in the 1950s. "We were treated like royalty," she said. "When they found out about my great-grandfather and grandfather, they laid down the green carpet, took us on a tour of the cemetery to see the graves of the Cunninghams, and that was reason to celebrate with a beer at the pub."

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